November 1, 2014

MBL Microbial Diversity Course to Receive “Milestones in Microbiology Site” Honor

“MBL Now” is a series of posts documenting the MBL’s 125th Anniversary year and celebrations.

The MBL Microbial Diversity course is being honored as a “Milestones in Microbiology Site” by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).

“Milestones in Microbiology” recognizes places where major developments in microbiology occurred and/or where outstanding microbiologists made seminal discoveries.

The course will receive the “Milestones in Microbiology Site” designation on Saturday, June 22, at 4:30 PM in the MBL Club, 100 Water Street, following the Microbial Diversity Course Symposium, which is from 9 AM to 4 PM in Redfield Auditorium.

“The MBL Microbial Diversity course has trained many outstanding microbiologists from around the world, providing scientific tools that they have used to make many important discoveries,” says Stanley Maloy, a past president of ASM. “MBL has been a major place where scientists have gathered (mostly over the summer) to discuss and do research on marine biology, ecology, and development–and microbiology has influenced and been influenced by each of these areas.  MBL, including the Microbial Diversity course, has had an important impact on our understanding of the critical role that microbes play in the environment, from the characterization of microbes that use unusual sources of nutrients to the discovery of microbes that live in unique ecosystems in the depths of the ocean.”

Microbial Diversity course students sampling in Great Sippewissett Salt Marsh, Falmouth. Photo by Dan Buckley.

Microbial Diversity course students sampling in Little Sippewissett Salt Marsh, Falmouth. Photo by Dan Buckley.

The Microbial Diversity course was founded at the MBL in 1971. At the time, the MBL offered several summer courses focused on biological research, all taught by leading scientists from around the world, but it had no course in microbiology. Several prominent microbiologists at the MBL and at its neighboring organization, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), participated in the establishment of the Microbial Diversity course and its subsequent flourishing. Yet one can point to four key scientists whose contributions were essential.

The first was Holger Jannasch of WHOI, a scientific grandfather for the field of microbial ecology. At the invitation of MBL leadership, Jannasch initiated the Microbial Diversity course (then called Marine Ecology) at the MBL and gathered an elite group of instructors for the first session. The course was an instant success.

The next two scientists who were vital to the course’s success were Selman and Byron Waksman. Selman had been a microbiologist and trustee at WHOI, and he recognized the importance of the Microbial Diversity Course. At a key time when it might have ended due to lack of funding, he stepped forward to offer support from the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology, which he had founded a year before his 1952 receipt of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. After Selman’s death, his son, Byron, helped to realize the foundation’s support of the course.

The fourth key scientist was Harlyn Halvorson, who succeeded Jannasch as the course’s director in 1981. Halverson had been introduced to the MBL by his father, H. Orin Halvorson, a noted microbiologist. Harlyn continued Jannasch’s course model of collecting a group of internationally recognized microbiologists to serve as course faculty. He also secured continued financial support for the course through a variety of granting agencies. (Halverson later served as MBL director from 1987 to 1991.)

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Artist Merry Buckley’s rendering of the “Volta experiment” that will decorate the ASM’s “Milestones in Microbiology” plaque honoring the Microbial Diversity course. For the Volta experiment (a storied course tradition), the students walk to a Woods Hole swamp one evening, wade in and stir up the bottom sediment, which causes ignitable methane gas to bubble up to the surface. The experiment is named after Alessandro Volta, the Italian physicist who first described methane in 1776-78.

One strength of the MBL summer courses, including Microbial Diversity, is that every four or five years, new directors bring a fresh approach and a new set of tools to the course.

“Each year, the course has a different ‘menu,’ because during the winter months, the directors become ‘chefs,’ developing elaborate plans for each microbial ‘feast of the week’ during the [course], deciding which areas to feature and whom to invite for the 20 or more guest lectures,” writes Ralph S. Wolfe in a history of the course (“The modern Microbial Diversity summer course at Woods Hole and others like it remain true to the van Niel legacy,” ASM’s Microbe magazine, September 2008).

“For student research projects, Sippewissett salt marsh [in Falmouth], one of the best studied such marshes in the world, provides one source of diverse microbiological materials,” Wolfe writes. “Oyster Pond Inlet, fronting Vineyard Sound, provides a brackish niche from which to isolate other marine species… In addition, live sea animals are maintained and cultured in a special facility where seawater is pumped continuously to laboratories. Manufacturers of scientific equipment provide their latest-model instruments for students to use in their experiments. In such an environment, research projects may be limited only by the imagination of the student.”

The Microbial Diversity course has shaped the careers of generations of outstanding microbiologists, and continues to be a premier site for advanced training at the leading edge of microbiological investigation. In addition to Jannasch and Halvorson, course directors over the years have included Ralph Wolfe, E. Peter Greenberg, Martin Dworkin, John Breznak, Edward Leadbetter, Abigail Salyers, Caroline Harwood, Alfred Spormann, William Metcalf, Thomas Schmidt, and current co-directors Daniel Buckley and Stephen Zinder.